Life, like technology, needs a return to the basics

There is something about news and the way it speaks about innovation, ideas, youth or what everyone calls the latest that makes anyone over 50 feel like a dinosaur. You sit and wonder if both of us are citizens and specimens belonging to the same world.

The other day I went to a discussion on “Body Shaming” to discover the new generation’s obsession about the body goes beyond a few fashion tips and cosmetics to the everydayness of plastic surgery. The body is seen more as an artifact, a piece of plumbing to be improved and not as a living entity.

Technology falls within the same list of entities as the battle for the latest eats into the daily budget. It is as if the old idea of the self is an impoverished one and needs to be replaced by improvements and accessories.

Contradiction

I find a contradiction in the way people think. At one level desire, aspiration and the need for mobility create a carbon footprint of an enormous order and yet the world also talks of sustainability, responsibility, of the need to challenge obsolescence.

One sees this in the way we look at the body — the body of old age is dismissed as obsolescent. There is something about India today that is indifferent and illiterate about old age condemning it to the backstage.

I was thinking all these thoughts when a journalist phoned up asking what I thought of the latest, sorry, the return of the Nokia 3310. The excitement that it generated was curious. Basically, it is a piece of technological nostalgia, an avatar of the phone that appeared two decades earlier.

nok_030517110919.jpgThere is a difference between an icon and a classic.

Of course, this is a slimmer phone and boasts several colours unlike the original monochrome. I was strangely touched to see old is gold but realised that these phones do not have a vintage quality. A classic is nurtured as a classic, like taking care of an old Bugatti or Rolls Royce, these phones are what are called icons.

There is a difference between an icon and a classic. A classic has to remain a classic untouched, kept in its original vintage form to gain in value. An icon is an exemplary piece of technology which can be retouched. The originality of a classic is untouchable but an icon is a brand, an exemplar which needs an occasional retouching.

The Nokia 3310 has been retouched. The advertisements call it “the original detox phone”, an effort to return to the classic simplicity of the original. Yet, as the excitement whittled down, I realised even the craving for simplicity virtually becomes an act of conspicuous consumption.

In an odd irony, one was reminded about poverty. Poverty in India especially if you are homeless can be expensive. Landsharks in Delhi even rent out the pavements at differential rates. Access for the poor becomes a heavily extortionate act.

Today simplicity is expensive. Nostalgia can be exorbitant. It only pretends to return to a simpler world only to tell you there is no going back. It is like looking at an old selfie and celebrating it for a few moments as you identify the people in the picture. Yet for a few minutes one responded happily to the idea.

Rethinking

It also made me rethink. The emphasis on innovation, technology can be counterproductive. Today food in many ways is no longer food. Food was a part of traditional wisdom where the housewife was the expert. Today food is no longer even a home science as it is being subject to an assault of fertilisers, additives, chemicals.

Even citing the originality of mother’s milk makes one feel a bit hesitant. Food today is a conspiracy of hormones and additives. To return to simplicity demands we go beyond technology and experts to the sophistication of simplicity.

To quote Ravi Subramanian, an astronomer at Raman Institute, one needs a proclivity for primitivism. One needs to refuse technological additions and modifications and, stick to the simplicity of the body, and go back to the originality of life style change.

When one talks of lifestyle, one feels a sense of the secondary. Lifestyle is what one reads about in newspaper supplements. It is seen more as a hobby, a temporary excitement like tourism. Subramanian felt one must differentiate between lifestyle and a way of life.

The ritual of the first can be gimmicky, more determined by weekend experts while a way of life is more embedded in culture, in the ritual of everyday life and rhythms. Subramanian laughingly added that sometime it is the technologist who must emphasise a sense of ‘primitivism’, a refusal to be carried away by the shoptalk of the latest in technology.

Simplification

Wisdom demands that you simplify and the wisdom of simplicity resists simplification. Simplicity combines ethics and technology and seeks to take a stand against dominant trends. It returns to the rhythm of the body, of seasons, of locality, adding to the ecology of the everyday.

In the beginning, it is hard work because one has to unlearn the reflexes created by modern technology and advertising. It also demands that one looks at learning, education, medicine and the body in more rudimentary but not less sophisticated terms.

One has to resist the current propensity to think that the solution to every problem is a technological artifact. Parent as teachers must accept responsibility to teach rather than secede the right to a machine. Memory becomes important, because conversation is critical. Every citizen is now a thinker, thinking out his life, by living it out.

Yet at one level, this essay must be seen as a thank-you note to Nokia 3310. I love the fuss it makes about the return to basics. Life, like technology, needs a return to the basics.

My scientist friends reminded me that it is society rather than technology that must be reinvented and sustained every day.

What we need are not only technological start-ups, but a sense of ethical start-ups to reveal a different kind of inventiveness, adding a new imagination to citizenship.

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